Bleed With Me: Menstruants Finally Have More Options So Let’s Talk About Them Extensively

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single menstruating person in possession of a tampon, uses between 8,000 to 17,000 of them in a lifetime (depending on how often they bleed). That’s about 140 kilos of sanitary waste per person.

Disposable pads and tampons influence and challenge two inescapable environments we engage with daily: the one we live in, and the one that lives inside of us. Disposable pads and tampons are like chewing gum: menstruating people consume a lot of them, and many are made of a type of plastic so they are terrible at breaking down in the ocean or on land. Basically we’re just leaving bloody junk everywhere for the bears, sharks and dogs to choke on.

Also, brands aren’t obligated to list the ingredients and chemicals that go into manufacturing disposable items, which is why on the Tampax website, they can tell you that one of the ingredients that goes into a tampon is ‘fragrance’ which is made of, specifically, ‘Fragrance ingredients like those found in other women’s products’ which also don’t have to list what ‘fragrance’ is made of. When you are leaving a wad of bleached rayon and cotton in a warm, moist environment — like a nose, or a vagina — it’d be nice to know what that wad is releasing over the course of a few hours while it’s also soaking up millilitres of blood. I’ll say it again: moist.

I wish I could tell you I was trying to be conspiratorial, but these are just things that have been studied and discussed and questioned over years and years. Today we’re at an exciting tipping point: when many of us menstruate, we are able to pursue alternative options to our traditional sanitary bread and butter. And I have tried these alternative options so I can report on every conceivable aspect of their comfort, cost, efficacy and mission.

A few years ago I complied this list of reusable menstrual products, dedicated to helping you know what you’re putting in, on, and around your bleeding vagina for up to ninety days of the year: how menstrual technology works, where it comes from, and what it can do for you and the world around you. I complied it because periods today are treated as an agent of change — and products are often sold as part of that change, so it’s worth being educated about them. It was published in Australia, I was paid sweet dollars, and then the publication folded and I was given the piece back, so I’ve updated elements of the article so you know where I’m at after years of use.

Note: To use any of these products, you have to be OK with touching and smelling your own blood, which is, you know, what keeps you alive. I have rated each out of five hot water bottles, as I believe the hot water bottle is the ultimate symbol of attainable period-bliss. I’ve tried to keep in mind finding a sweet spot

Washable Pads

Using rags to catch menstrual flow is the genesis of that magical phrase, being ‘on your rags’. Behold the reusable pad: a modern rag which can hold exactly as much blood as every supermarket-bought disposable counterpart. If you’re a gun at sewing or you can find the right retailer, reusable pads can be custom made with the material you want, to fit exactly your body. I bought some online in a range of sizes and they’ve lasted wash after wash, stain-free, for four years.

Reusable pads aren’t ideal if you’re camping, your home life isn’t safe or secure, or you’re an archaeologist on a field trip: they need time and a place to dry, and if you’re changing them during the day, it’s best to have a clip lock bag to keep used pads contained. The best way to clean pads involves a bucket of cold water with your soaking agent of choice. Throw your used pads into the bucket for eight hours, tip the residual water onto your garden or down your toilet, and throw the soaked pads in your washing machine with everything else. If you’re squeamish, you don’t even need to touch them. Do they smell in the bucket? After eight hours soaking, yes. It’s the smell of your blood that came out of you, when you bled.

Rating: 4/5 hot water bottles

Comfortable, environmentally friendly, easy to clean and easily available online — the only pitfall of the reusable pad is that they’re not travel/street friendly.

Menstrual Underpants

I’m going to be talking about three companies: Padkix, Dear Kates, and THINX. A wonderment and an innovation, menstrual underpants are exactly, and unbelievably, what they say they are: underpants that collect period blood and feel like a swimming costume. Like a reusable pad, they’re soakable. But only PadKix claim to hold as much blood as conventional pads and tampons: I’ve found that Dear Kates and THINX are useful as tampon-backup, or on your lighter days, or if you can afford, like, ten pairs to tear through during the Kill Bill part of your period.

People talk about disposable sanitary napkins having technology that keeps you dry, but they have nothing — nothing — on the dryness, leakproofness, and comfort given to me by menstrual underpants. Shout-out to the Dear Kate’s full brief, which is the only pair I’ve found with blood-catching material tailored all the way up the back of the underpant, for all those times you’re asleep and by some stealth of the womb, blood ends up defying gravity and leaking up your bottom crack.

I have a complicated relationship with menstrual underpants — I want to love them. They are often expensive, and they don’t seem durable: I’ve noticed the elastic and lace on my pairs of Dear Kates and THINX already wearing, and I’ve had them for six cycles. PadKix are low-cut but more sensible in make (less lace, more pad), and the crotch of the PadKix are a grey colour, which is important because most commonly, menstrual underpants are made with black material in the crotch. That might sound awesome because you don’t have to be confronted by staining, but against black, it becomes almost impossible to tell how heavy or light you are, or whether your blood is brown or a vibrant red — which can help indicate the health, regularity, and functionality of your reproductive organs.

The aesthetically similar brands — THINX and Dear Kates — are designed in New York. Dear Kates are also manufactured in New York, and THINX are manufactured in a family-run factory in Sri Lanka. THINX contribute a portion of their profits to AfriPads, a project aiming to employ women to manufacture reusable pads, made available to their own local community in Uganda. After reading about Chris Bobel’s latest book, The Managed Body, which discusses the tendency for white settlers to mythologise the methods of menstruating used in non-white nations, I don’t know enough about Afripads to have an opinion about the well-intentioned initiative. By providing pads to school students, the project hopes to encourage menstruators to attend class where otherwise their period can act as a barrier to seeking education. I can’t help but notice that menstrual underpants are sold to people in a western nation to produce reusable pads for menstruators in a non-western nation. It makes me wonder, among other things, if, lace and novelty forgotten, the project reveals that reusable pads are actually the more sensible, hardy, and practical option in life.

I used three pairs of THINX and two pairs of Dear Kates until they all completely lost their blood-retainability about two years after I got them. I’ve been using my PadKix for five years now. They’re still going strong, because they’re not designed to be anything more than an underpant with a big washable pad sewn into them. I love my PadKix and I’d give them 4/5 hot water bottles today.

Rating: 3/5 hot water bottles

I desperately want to give these a high score because I can’t begin to tell you how amazing it is to wake up in the middle of the night with your period, roll out of bed, put underpants on and roll back into bed, but I’m not sold. Despite being comfortable, they’re expensive, and Dear Kates and THINX wear as quickly as normal underpants. Give menstrual underpants another few years of development, or try something less invisible and more practical.

Menstrual Cups

Made of a soft, flexible, medical-grade silicone, menstrual cup normalcy has flourished since the MoonCup retailed in the UK in 2002. While the MoonCup’s slogan is ‘The Original Menstrual Cup’, in the 1930s, Leona W. Chalmers patented the design in America, and there are instructional diagrams in Chalmers’ book, The Intimate Side of A Woman’s Life that show a menstrual cup almost identical to the MoonCup.

One cup will set you back about $40, but menstrual cups have an impressively long life. If you had been using menstrual cups since the 1930s you’d be postmenopausal by now, but you’d also have only gone through about five menstrual cups in your reproductive life, instead of contributing hundreds of kilos of sanitary waste to landfill. Logistically speaking, to use a menstrual cup hygienically when you’re at work or out, you’re going to need a bottle of water to rinse the cup, a cloth to dry the cup, and a clip lock bag for your cloth. At the end of your cycle, throw it in a saucepan of boiling water to sterilise. But the brilliant thing about menstrual cups is they are awesome at holding a lot of blood. On a not-heavy day, you can put it in in the morning, and you don’t really have to change it until you get home. You can sleep in them. You can swim in them. You can music festival in them. Because it’s silicone, it doesn’t leave material residue inside of you, unlike a tampon. There is a swimming pool full of styles and makes available these days, and to get a great sense of what each one does, I highly, highly recommend being taken by the hand of YouTube’s period expert, Bree Farmer.

4.5/5 hot water bottles

The menstrual cup is the queen of progressive menstrual products: portable, easy to clean, long lasting and in the long-term, affordable. Half a point off because for those with vaginismus and endometriosis, the cup can be difficult to use.

Sea Sponges

Sea sponges are the tampons of the ocean. They are round, yellow sponges, grown in the salty beds around the world, for your vagina. In 1980, twelve menstrual sea sponges were examined by the University of Iowa Laboratory, and were found to contain some really delightful stuff, like sand and grit and bacteria. But hey, at least we know what’s in them. Based on these findings, the FDA decided that sea sponges could no longer be listed as sanitary items — they could only be sold as ambiguous ‘sponges’ with a winky emoji. So it’s a softcore black market. But after reading a Mashable article which cited gynaecologist Dr. Raquel Dardik at the Joan H. Tisch Women’s Health Center at NYU Langone Medical Center, assuring readers that sponges were safe, I STILL TRIED THEM.

Sea sponges seem deterrently solid and raspy when unpackaged, but sellers instruct that you soak them in water and squeeze all retention out to make them silken before insertion. Once they’re full, rinse them, and then soak in hot water and tea tree oil. As a natural product, they biodegrade quickly — so quickly that if you’re rough with them, they can tear easily and they only last for five or so cycles. Due to severe endometriosis, I sometimes struggle with pain when inserting and retrieving a menstrual cup. By comparison the sea sponge was a painless cinch to use. Like a tampon, you can buy a light, medium or heavy flow-set of sponges. They’re absorbent, but they don’t hold quite the same volume as a tampon or a menstrual cup.

Rating: 2.5/5 hot waterbottles

I keep reading that sea sponges are affordable, but in Australia at least, they’re not — especially given their limited lifespan. Additionally, I have questions about any ‘naturally occurring’ product occurring in enough mass to remain sustainable when thousands of people are buying them. So, points for being a naturally-occurring product, and for being comfortable to use, but they’re expensive, and nobody likes to have to talk themselves into a calm facade while they feel around for a sliver of torn sponge.

Of all of these, the menstrual cup seems to be the hardy, safe, long-wearing, affordable, every-bleeder’s choice, and despite the delightful security a pair of menstrual underpants promises, I can’t go past the durability and comfort of a good set of reusable pads. Just remember, though, that through the same law of non-disclosure loved by disposable sanitary products worldwide, no alternative menstrual brand is required to detail what goes into their products. If you want to know what goes into tampons and pads, consider signing a petition to pressure a change in disclosure laws, or learn more about the current legislation. Some items break down in the environment much more easily than others. Some options are items most easily accessible through particular privilege. Others are only accessible if you trample the FDA. Everybody holds potential to be terrible, I guess. And everybody holds potential to be an agent of change.

Love and thanks to my original editor and commission, Sheree Joseph.